I watched a very moving documentary last night on BBC3 (another from their ‘Adult Season‘) about young carers and the challenges they face. Tulisa Contostavlos, who is apparently part of some pop group or other (I’m showing my permature middle-aged-ness here!) was a carer for her mum who has mental health difficulties. She talks about her experiences and visits a handful of the estimated eighty-thousand young carers in the UK, seeing how they cope with the demands on them and juggling school, friends and future plans.
A lot of the themes of this programme resonated deeply with my own experience. My mum used to have pretty severe OCD to do with cleaning – it was never diagnosed, but she wouldn’t to this day think her behaviour was odd in any way. When we (my younger brother and I) were young, she used to spend six days out of seven cleaning the house, week-in and week-out. Making mess, however minor, was the worst thing one could ever do. It got to the point when I was a teenager were we were told to go to bed at 9pm because she needed to rest but couldn’t go to sleep if she thought the sofa was messy or the bathroom sink hadn’t been wiped after people had cleaned their teeth. She only ever left the house to go to the Post Office or corner shop, and I was never allowed friends around in case they made a mess.
Added to this, when I was around eleven years old (I can’t remember exactly), my brother developed a bowel problem that resulted in frequent painful rushing to the loo. The combination of a clean-freak and a messy illness that took ages to diagnose and get properly treated was a recipe for disaster. Home life was constantly tense, and as my father took refuge in work, I was left basically to be the adult, dealing with my brother and mum crying on my shoulder. It was very lonely and bloody hard work.
As well as practical support and maybe respite care for young carers, one thing shown in the programme was the benefit of having other young people facing similar issues that they could hang out with and talk to.
Both Tulisa and another lass, Hannah, talked about feeling isolated and of their own resulting mental health difficulties. I was first depressed when I was about twelve, and part of the reason I’m sure was feeling that I had no-one I could talk to. My parents didn’t seem to realise the odd-ness of mum’s behaviour, and the family dynamics were such that I felt treated as somehow inferior to my brother. Teachers would have to have gone to Social Services, and I didn’t want to cause trouble. The lack of being able to go out or feeling able to explain this to my friends led to more bullying. I would have been so grateful for someone I could trust just to listen, rather than having to bottle it up.
I love my mum more than I could express, but I doubt she (or my father for that matter) would be able, looking back, to see the situation as I saw it. It has taken quite a bit of counselling to deal with it all. Knowing that she’ll always be the way she is to some extent has helped me let go of unrealistic expectations of her that were making it hard for me to forgive. These days, we have a decent relationship, even if she never listens!
The positive relationships the young people had with their mums were very encouraging, and remarkable given the burdens they had to shoulder. It shows how, as my own mum said recently in a different context, love can conquer all.